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In addition to that immense pitching talent, Jerry Koosman had toughness and humor to spare. Whether Koosman’s Mets needed grit or a laugh, the man from Minnesota could deliver.
That comes alive in talking to a few of Koosman’s former teammates, who told SNY some of their favorite stories about the left-handed “1-A” in a sparkling starting rotation headed by Tom Seaver. Koosman could make teammates laugh or swell with pride, if, say, another team’s star needed to be backed off the plate.
Koosman, 78, is having his No. 36 retired on Saturday, Aug. 28 at Citi Field. He joins Seaver (No. 41) and Mike Piazza (No. 31) as the only Mets to have their numbers retired in celebration of their playing careers. Casey Stengel (No. 37) and Gil Hodges (No. 14) both had their numbers retired as managers and Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 is retired throughout baseball.
In 12 years with the Mets, Koosman won 140 games and had a 3.09 ERA. He won two games in the 1969 World Series, including the clincher, and was a key cog in the Mets' run to the 1973 World Series, too.
Here’s a look at one of the greatest pitchers in Mets history in the words of his teammates. Their remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
Ron Swoboda (Mets teammate 1967-70)
“Late in ‘69, the Cubs came in to Shea and Koozie was pitching against Bill Hands (Sept. 8). Hands made the mistake of throwing at Agee. You just knew retribution was at hand. Koozie didn’t fool around with that business. You gave him an excuse to drill you and he was going to drill you up around your neckline. Leo Durocher, who thought he invented baseball, started that crap and Koozie threw one at Ron Santo and that sucker was heading right for his jawbone if he didn’t get his arm in front of it. It sounded like someone hit him with a two-by-four. He screamed, you know. And Ron was a pretty tough guy. I thought Koosman broke his arm, but he didn’t. But I think Santo went down to first base a different person. I remember Seaver was standing on the steps, yelling across the way, ‘You guys don’t want to play that game.’ And that knockdown crap was over. And I think it was a harbinger of things to come.
“Koozie was that kind of tough guy. I always felt like if you needed to win a ballgame, I don’t care who it was against, you didn’t care whether it was Seaver or Koosman. Koozie’s stuff when he was healthy played as good as Tom Seaver’s and I think he had that extra factor that you didn’t get with Tommy in those situations.
“In the World Series, Game 5, the Orioles had gotten some runs off him early and we were behind (3-0). He came to the bench in the third or fourth inning and said, ‘I’m telling you right now, get me some runs because they ain’t getting no more.’ And they didn’t get no more. When he said it, you believed him.
“He broke more right-hander’s bats than anyone. He should’ve gotten a bat contract from Louisville Slugger. He got them more business by burying that fastball in on right-handers and blowing up their bats. It was pretty funny.”
Cleon Jones (Mets teammate 1967-75)
“Every team could use a stopper like Jerry. In ‘69, Gil Hodges preached the team concept and protecting one another. Whenever an opposing pitcher threw at me or Agee or Kranepool, Koosman never came to us and asked, ‘Do you think he was throwing at you?’ He’d just throw one right at the chin of the next guy up, put him on his back to let the other team know we protect our own. Everybody knew about Seaver and what he accomplished, but I had guys from the opposing team come up to me and say, ‘Who’s that left-hander with all the great stuff?’ I’d say, ‘You’re talking about Koo.’ This honor being bestowed on him is well earned. To me, he was a Hall of Fame pitcher.
“And to be around him meant you had to be on your toes, because he’d always throw something at you, some kind of riddle. He’d come up with something. He was a fun teammate. He wasn’t just good on the mound, but the clubhouse, the bus rides, the plane. He always had a joke to tell.”
Ed Kranepool (Mets teammate 1967-78)
“I always thought Jerry was the intimidator, a fierce competitor. The guy you wanted on the mound. Nothing bothered him. In the World Series, it was his victory in the second game that turned the series around.
“He was as strong as an ox. He had a lot of stamina. His legs were very strong, like a farm boy. Jerry certainly deserves this. He was a No. 1 pitcher on a staff that had a Hall of Famer ahead of him. You can't say anything negative about Tom. If Jerry wasn't No. 1, he was 1A right beside Tom. I would take Jerry any time to take the mound and say 'go get 'em.' He was a great competitor, a great guy to be with.
“We still talk after all these years. We’ve been friends for 50 years -- that’s a long time to be friends with someone. I'm proud I’m going to be in attendance for the ceremony. I look forward to seeing him. He's a super guy and he's been a good friend for a lot of years. We've lost a couple of them on our club. It's sad. You've got to celebrate when you can.”
Jon Matlack (Mets teammate 1971-77)
“Jerry was my locker mate and he was my bridge partner. As hard as Seaver, the guru of bridge, tried, he could not come up with a partner to beat Koozie and I. Not because we were better players, but we got better cards. It drove Tom nuts. Tommy was the one who got it all started. He read the book by (Charles) Goren and got it started. Then he tried to put together a team to beat us. Kooz was a good bridge player, but none of us were in Seaver’s category. But our cards used to win out.
“I always thought Jerry was a big part of my success in pitching. My locker was next to Jerry and Seaver, the center wall on one side at Shea. It was an interesting place. From Seaver, I got pitching theory, history, sleeping habits, eating. On the other side was Jerry, a fellow left-hander who had been there and could tell me the ropes. It sure made my transition to the big leagues. In 1973, Jerry was one of the key cogs in the rotation for a team that basically won on pitching and defense. We cobbled together enough offense sometimes. Everybody in the division was in first place at one time that year and we took our turn at the end.”
Duffy Dyer (Mets teammate from 1968-71)
“Jerry has a great laugh and I’ll always remember how funny he was. He was a happy go lucky guy, a little like Tug (McGraw). They were both left-handed, both a little crazy. He was always laughing at his own jokes -- he’d tell one and he’d laugh more than anyone. He was so much fun to be around. He was a totally different person on the mound, a bull. I wouldn’t have wanted to have him mad at me.
“The one thing I remember on the field is the day in ‘69 we swept Pittsburgh in a doubleheader, both games were 1-0. (Editor’s note: This was Sept. 12. Koosman threw a three-hit shutout in the first game and Don Cardwell threw eight scoreless innings in game two. Each pitcher knocked in the game’s only run, too). After that, I really thought we had a chance to win the whole thing.
“Jerry was so underrated because Seaver was there, too. His fastball had really good movement and he threw hard. I always thought he was tougher to catch because you didn’t know how his fastball was going to move each time -- cut, sink or rise. It was such a great pitch.”
Art Shamsky (Mets teammate from 1968-71)
“With Jerry and McGraw, you were always on your toes, either laughing or making sure they weren’t spoofing on you in some way. I always called Seaver ‘Van Gogh’ and Koosman 'Patton.' Different styles. Jerry was a tale of two characters. He was different on days he wasn’t pitching, like most pitchers. We wouldn’t have won in ‘69 without him and you can say that about almost every guy on that team.
“In ‘69, I know some people say Game 3 was the most important game, but I think it’s Game 2, which Jerry pitched. If we don’t win Game 2 after losing the first one in Baltimore, we’re liable to lose four in a row to a great team. But we weren’t worried after Game 1 because we had Jerry pitching the next day. That’s how much confidence we had in his ability (Koosman allowed one run in 8.2 innings in a 2-1 victory in Game 2). Now we’re 1-1 and that changed the series. Then he pitched great in Game 5 (a complete game in a 5-3 win). He gave up a couple home runs, but Hodges had the wherewithal to keep him in the game and Jerry had all that confidence.
“I have the utmost respect for Jerry. He’s a fun-loving guy, but when he took the mound, he was as serious as anybody. He’s a Damon Runyon character in many ways. His personality, his friendship, are very important to me.”
Wayne Garrett (Mets teammate from 1969-76)
We were in Atlanta playing a night game and it was so hot. It just didn’t seem to cool down, no breeze circulating. I’m playing third base, Jerry was pitching and it was around the seventh or eighth inning. Jerry was exhausted. We all were. He waves to me and wants me to come over. I slowly jogged to the mound and he says, ‘I need a rest. Tell me a funny joke. Anything.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Seriously? I’m tired, too.’ He looked at me and goes, ‘You’re right -- you do look pretty bad. I thought I felt bad, but you really look bad. I feel good now!’ He went on pitching and, knowing him, he would have completed the game.”
Joe Torre, Mets teammate 1975-77 and manager in 1977-78
“One of my memories of Jerry is when I was still learning as a manager. Jerry was pitching and I wanted to go talk to him. I wasn’t planning on taking him out -- I wanted to talk to him about who he wanted to pitch to, what if they pinch-hit. I think we were playing Pittsburgh. I got to the mound and he handed me the ball. Shoot, I’ve got to take him out now -- once you hand the ball over, you’ve kind of mentally checked out. I had someone warming up at the time, so it was OK. But from that point on, I started doing something other than just walking out to the mound when I wanted to talk to the pitcher. That’s when I started jogging out to the mound to talk to them, so the pitcher would know I didn’t want to take him out.”